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Connected, autonomous, shared, electrified vehicles "probably a lot closer than you think"

Russ White MSU Today
Mark Phelan, Kirk Heinze

Kirk Heinze welcomes widely read and highly respected Detroit Free Press automotive columnist Mark Phelan to MSU Today. Phelan is a proud alumnus of the MSU J-School.  Heinze and Phelan discuss the state of the auto industry and of journalism itself, so much under siege these days.

Phelan says the industry has been on an upswing for the last several years. The market has plateaued some recently. The industry is expected to be down a few hundred thousand units in sales in 2019.

“That's not enough to cause any automaker great stress,” says Phelan. “But it's a change from the days when they could sell everything they could build.”

The industry is changing and evolving. Plant closings and restructuring are becoming the norm.

“We've seen a time of very healthy profits but also layoffs of both factory workers and white collar workers, which is an almost unprecedented combination in the auto industry. And it's because the type of vehicles people are buying has changed pretty drastically and pretty quickly. And also there's so much emphasis on developing new autonomous and electric vehicles that there is a lot of hiring of new people with newer skills while others whose skills had been vital in the past are being let go. It’s a very stressful time for a lot of people.”

Phelan details how consumers’ tastes have gone almost completely away from sedans toward what he calls “tall station wagons.” And he tells why the iconic Detroit North American International Auto Show is moving from January to June beginning in 2020. The change comes at a time when auto shows around the globe are losing some of their significance to automakers, who now have more options for introducing new models.

Phelan says connected, autonomous, shared and electrified vehicles are on the way.

“It's getting closer every day and it's probably a lot closer than you think. General Motors is absolutely adamant that they will have self-driving vehicles in taxi service in the heart of some major American city this year. And it will be an operating commercial service. It won't just be a test program. If they do that, that's a huge milestone.

“What we're going to see is a migration and it'll be 40 or 50 years before every vehicle on the road is capable of autonomy. And there will probably be many that people still have the option of driving themselves. But these vehicle can make a big difference for delivery services or taxis and shuttles. I think it will be great for a lot of people who have restricted mobility, whether it's because they're too young or too old or have physical reasons. And I think it will tremendously increase the autonomy and the quality of life, frankly, for a lot of people who would not be able to get around and do the things they need to do. And that is one of the areas that we'll see relatively quickly. We will see some more wealthy areas setting up their own geo-fenced services so that if you live in Birmingham, Michigan, for instance, the city may have a small fleet of autonomous vehicles that will pick you up at your house and take you to the restaurant or the optometrist or anything like that and it'll grow. It's important that it become available to everybody. I really think that it's a great opportunity, but you don't want to assume that it's happening overnight because it won't.”

Phelan says the inflection point for electrified vehicles “is going to be around 2021 or 2022. That seems to be when a lot of the programs that mass market brands have in place should begin to push meaningful numbers of these vehicles into the hands of normal people.”

Phelan believes the field of journalism is alive and well, despite being under siege from the highest office in the land.

“The quality of the work that's being done is great. And that's in part because there are huge, massive issues that are very polarizing and things that are affecting how we define ourselves as a people in pretty profound ways. And that kind of thing demands more work, demands more coverage and also generates more passion on both sides.”   

And so what about the young people in MSU School of Journalism today?

“I can't imagine a better way to have spent my professional life. It's great. But it's hard. For every job there is flying around the world covering big international events or sitting down with the heads of global automakers and talking with them about strategy and the state of the world's environment, there are a hundred jobs that are just as important to filling the newspaper and keeping the radio waves full of information but that look less glamorous.

"So I think that if this is something that you feel like you have to do, if this is the thing that you were born to do, if this is what makes you happy, then don't let anyone talk you out of it. But if you're just thinking it'd be nice to be on TV or it'd be great if people recognize you when you go to the grocery store, that's not the reason to get into it. It's a great way to make a living and the fact that it's so much easier for people to get information these days and the fact that there's a greater appetite for information than ever before, I think makes this a terrific time for us.”

MSU Today airs Sunday afternoons at 4:00 on 105.1 FM and AM 870.

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